The Democratic presidential field has coalesced around an abortion rights agenda more far-reaching than anything past nominees have proposed, according to a New York Times survey of the campaigns. The positions reflect a hugely consequential shift on one of the country’s most politically divisive issues.
Every candidate The Times surveyed supports codifying Roe v. Wade in federal law, allowing Medicaid coverage of abortion by repealing the Hyde Amendment, and removing funding restrictions for organizations that provide abortion referrals. Almost all of them said they would nominate only judges who support abortion rights, an explicit pledge Democrats have long avoided.
Very few support restrictions on abortions late in pregnancy. Seven say abortion pills should be available over the counter. Nine want a federal approval process for state abortion laws. And Joe Biden, whose ambivalence on abortion rights has been a theme for decades, is seeking to recast himself as a full-throated champion of them.
The 2020 candidates’ responses reflect a fundamental change in the Democratic Party’s approach to reproductive issues. In other areas, from health care to taxes, there is a divide between liberal and moderate candidates. Here, it is minimal.
“What you’ve seen is that it’s no longer OK for any candidate just to say they’re pro-choice,” said Jacqueline Ayers, vice president for government relations and public policy at Planned Parenthood. “They’re being very specific on how our rights are under attack, how access to abortion is being undermined in this country, and putting forth plans to protect and expand rights.”
With several states passing near-total bans on abortion, and with the first Supreme Court majority in a generation that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the Democratic candidates are at once agreeing that abortion rights require a more forceful defense, and concluding that defense is not enough.
The ramifications are hard to predict. The public is strongly supportive of Roe v. Wade, but deeply divided on how accessible abortion should be beyond Roe’s basic protections. President Donald Trump has shown that he is willing to weaponize abortion to turn out his base, including through misleading or outright false narratives. And historically, abortion has been a bigger motivator for conservative voters than liberals.
Whether any of this changes in 2020 will depend, in part, on how the Democratic nominee talks about abortion rights, particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where many swing voters are not as far to the left on abortion as the candidates.
“You can’t rule out that it could become an issue,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Pennsylvania, “depending on the candidate and to what degree they move it forward as an issue.”
A Basic Reframing
The most striking change, beyond individual policies, is how unapologetic candidates’ tone on abortion rights has become.
Advocates have traditionally said they support the right to choose abortion, not abortion itself, and Democrats have said it should be “safe, legal and rare.” Public debate has commonly centered on procedures after 20 weeks’ gestation, which account for less than 1.5% of abortions. The discussion has often been on opponents’ terms.
Now, almost every candidate says the next president should actively reframe the debate. Their language focuses on health care, bodily autonomy and, at times, even the idea of abortion as a positive force enabling women to control their lives and increase their economic security.
“Abortion is health care, and health care is a human right,” Elizabeth Warren wrote in her survey response. In the last debate, she argued that abortion rights were “also economic rights.”
Only Tulsi Gabbard, Joe Sestak and Marianne Williamson now say abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” — a phrase, popularized by President Bill Clinton and repeated by Hillary Clinton, that reflected a search for common ground with people not fully supportive of abortion rights.
The rest of the 2020 candidates sidestepped or rejected the “rare” part. Bernie Sanders, for instance, wrote, “Abortion should be safe, legal and accessible to every person who chooses it.”
Asked if they supported restrictions after 24 weeks — roughly when a healthy fetus can survive outside the womb, though viability varies from pregnancy to pregnancy — only Sestak said yes. (Gabbard, who did not complete the survey, has also said she supports restrictions in the third trimester.) Several candidates emphasized that less than 1% of abortions happen that late, often because of life-threatening conditions or severe fetal abnormalities.
Amy Klobuchar’s campaign did not fully answer the question, saying she believed “any restrictions must be consistent with Roe v. Wade.”
Roe allowed near-total bans in the third trimester as long as there was an exception for life- or health-threatening situations. Planned Parenthood v. Casey replaced the trimester framework with one based on viability, which can start in the late second trimester.
An Emboldened Defense
For years, the battle over the Supreme Court has been conducted in code. Republicans denounced “judicial activism” and Democrats called for justices who would “respect precedent” — that they were talking about one precedent in particular remaining unsaid.
In May, Kirsten Gillibrand vowed to nominate only judges who would uphold Roe v. Wade. Though she is no longer in the race, her pledge is: All of the candidates who completed the survey said they would “require judicial nominees to support Roe v. Wade as settled law.”
Biden’s campaign brought up his role in blocking Robert Bork’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987, which probably would have meant the end of Roe. Biden’s objections then were more about birth control than abortion — but his eagerness now to play up the latter is telling of how profoundly the Democratic terrain has shifted.
Also telling is that the candidates are not solely talking about preserving Roe: In an acknowledgment that the Supreme Court might have enough votes to dismantle it, they all support legislation to codify its protections.
Every candidate who responded wanted to ban states’ so-called TRAP laws (an acronym for targeted regulations of abortion providers). These measures — requirements that providers have hospital admitting privileges, for instance, or that hallways be a certain width — don’t technically restrict abortions but have the effect of making it harder for clinics to remain open.
And a majority endorsed a federal preclearance requirement for state abortion laws, which Kamala Harris proposed in May. Only Andrew Yang and Sestak definitively rejected it.
Preclearance, which would block the laws in question until the Justice Department approved them, could stop TRAP laws as well as waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds. It would also preempt bans like Alabama’s and laws like Georgia’s (both blocked by courts for now) that forbid abortion after six or eight weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.
A Shift to Offense
The idea of expanding abortion rights, not just maintaining them, was in the wings of the debate until recently. Now, it is center stage.
Like every Democratic president in the past 35 years, the candidates (except Gabbard) have all pledged to repeal the Mexico City policy, or global gag rule, which blocks foreign aid to organizations that provide abortion referrals or promote abortion rights. All of them want to undo Trump’s Title X rules, which similarly restrict family planning funding for organizations within the United States.
But they have also gone further. All of them want to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid coverage for abortion in most circumstances. Twelve want to repeal the Helms Amendment, which has prevented foreign aid from being used to cover abortions since 1973. (Biden’s campaign did not answer that question.)
Nine candidates want to require private insurers to cover abortion, though Biden’s campaign again declined to answer, Klobuchar said she was unsure and Sestak said no.
And seven said the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone, which induce abortions, should be available over the counter.
This would be a major leap from current policy, which restricts the drugs’ availability even by prescription, and would require multiple legal and regulatory changes. But if enacted, it would make it much harder to effectively ban abortion.
Betting on Public Opinion
A common thread in the candidates’ answers was a firm belief that the public is on their side.
Whether that is true is a complicated question, likely to play out next year as many elections since 2016 have — in the growing chasm between rural and suburban voters.
“A lot of his white, working-class voters are not in favor of abortion,” Madonna said of the president, but “suburban voters tend to be more liberal on a whole array of cultural issues.”
On the basic tenet that Roe v. Wade should stay, Democrats are on solid ground: Polls show that anywhere from 60% to more than 75% of Americans support Roe.
But there is much less support — 20% to 30%, generally — for making abortion always legal, as the candidates advocate. That is more popular than making it always illegal, but most Americans are in between.
Even among Democrats, according to Gallup, “legal under any circumstances” is a minority position, ranging from 39% to 46% in the past couple of years. Among independents, that number is about 25%.
So it is noteworthy that, in a historically large field, there is little differentiation among the candidates on abortion rights — even among the more moderate candidates who, on other issues, have emphasized courting swing voters.
“They’re setting the tone that this is something we should own proudly,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, “and not just react to when something happens.”
The New York Times sent a survey to 16 Democratic candidates on Nov. 5. Eleven completed it. For those who did not — Steve Bullock, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris — we examined publicly available information from policy papers, debates and interviews. The survey was conducted before Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick entered the race.